Christmas 1812 – No shirt, no shoes, yet serviceWritten by Frank Kuron | | email@example.com
“Hick’ry roots roasting on an open fire … Jack Frost snipping off your toes … Empty barrels being scraped for some flour … and folks in need of winter clothes …”
Forgive me Nat, but Christmas Day, 1812, in the Northwest Territory was far from an idyllic stroll through the park for our soldiers. In fact, it was a deadly trudge through the forest and swamp.
By Dec. 25, 1812, most of the residents of our area had already fled south or east. Fort Detroit had fallen the past August, and locals feared more conflict in their own backyards. They were right. As they left, U.S. troops flowed in from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and southern Ohio. No one could have imagined the series of historic battles that would occur throughout the next year.
Back east, over the Appalachians, the civilians marked Christmas Day on their calendars as the day to acknowledge the birth of Jesus Christ. Period. It was not necessarily a festive event. Many, especially in the northern states, frowned on overt celebrations of the day and treated it as any other except for a church visit. The majority in the Southern states went to church as well; but they also celebrated with grand meals, plenty of drink, games, dancing and mincemeat pie.
Santa was only a vague concept known to a few as “Father Christmas” in 1812. It would be another 11 years before Clement Moore would create the current “Santa” of our imaginations in his poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas, aka “Twas the night before Christmas.” And Dickens, who made Christmas a family-oriented event through his novels, was all of ten months old this December 25th. In twenty-four more years, Alabama would be the first to make Christmas a legal holiday! Like I said, it was business as usual for many on this day in 1812.
It’s safe to assume that if the troops were Christians in their heart, they placed a special stamp on this day; but no doubt their circumstances en-route to the mouth of the Maumee River may have tested their faith.
The militia in transit from Pennsylvania found themselves in Upper Sandusky at the end of December. Their number was 600 less than when they started just a couple of months earlier. Most deserted because of the cold, disease and starvation; others died from it. The Great Black Swamp played no favorites.
On Christmas Eve, one diary records that these men were called into formation and gave three shouts in approval of some good news. It was a victory by their fellows against the Miami Indians along the Mississinewa River in the Indiana Territory. The diary makes no mention of a Christmas celebration, only that they continued to build blockhouses, bridges and sleds in the bitter cold — some while shoeless and shirtless.
It was certainly a white Christmas throughout the region. Twelve to 20 inches of snow covered the ground. And it was cold. Frostbite cold. Countless men returned home missing digits and limbs.
The troops at Mississinewa marched incessantly for seven days after their victory, with very little sleep or food, hoping to reach the comfort of Fort Greenville, in present-day Greenville, Ohio. Finally, they arrived on Christmas Eve to a blessing of warmth, food and drink and even a little frolic, but not before having to bury another of their battle-wounded boys.
A little state-to-state hospitality was offered to the men of Richmond, Va., when they arrived in the capital of Ohio — Chillicothe. The legislators provided the Virginians a Christmas Eve dinner in the comfort of a local hotel. The town citizens duplicated the gesture on Christmas Day. These would be the last full meals the troops would enjoy for the next 10 months.
Gen. James Winchester led more troops north along the Maumee River, making camp throughout November and December just north of Defiance, Ohio. The men who were still alive after their two-month ordeal of bitter cold and lack of food spent Christmas Day packing up the camp for a move to the Maumee River rapids. Three-hundred of their fellow Kentuckians died for want of food during this encampment, thus the place became known as Fort Starvation.
Merrier Christmas holidays were ahead. On Christmas Eve 1814, the Treaty of Ghent would be signed, ending the War of 1812.
Frank Kuron is author of the War of 1812 book, “Thus Fell Tecumseh.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.